Why did Dr. Marilyn Kallet eat a hedgehog?

Susan EspirituWest Knoxville

A hedgehog holiday card sent one year, with the poem inside

Last week, I wrote Hedgehog is the Animal of the Year in Germany and it brought me a fascinating story from Marilyn Kallet, professor emerita of English at the University of Tennessee, who wrote a poem about eating a hedgehog during her student days in Paris!

Now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story!

Dr. Kallet’s inspiration to study and write poetry began from a childhood born in turmoil and struggle, growing up in a working-class poor household in Rockville Centre, New York. One of her elementary school teachers, Ms. Howe, a gentle presence, mentored her in reading and writing for years and acted as a refuge from turmoil at home. The love of reading never left her, and she later went to Tufts University, where she studied poetry with XJ Kennedy and French poetry with Madame Pradal. Dr. Kallet says, “I fell in love with poetry through them.”

Marilyn Kallet spent her college junior year in Paris, through the Tufts in Paris program. She learned French through daily life and study at the Sorbonne Cours de civilisation. In Paris, she lived with a French family that was trying to save money by boarding American students. There, Madame Moreau served her the hedgehog and thus inspired the poem that has made it into many of her published 19 books, eight of which are poetry.

William Blake’s line, “Enough. Or too much,” is one of Kallet’s favorite quotes born from the experiences of her life. One of those left a lasting impression. During her stay with the French family, she remembers Monsieur Moreau laughing about the day the Paris police took away the Jews. She says it took many years for her to go back to France and investigate the tragedy that befell the Jews during the Nazi occupation, and there are plaques now at the public schools where Jewish children were rounded up.

Son-in-law, Mark Hanselman, grandson, Jack, and daughter, Heather Miriam Gross

Dr. Kallet says another of her favorite quotes, “Even when we sleep, we watch over one another,” by Paul Eluard is in her latest book title Even When We Sleep, after that line. It also represents her dedication to the art of poetic expression as for two decades she has led spring or summer workshops in Auvillar, France, for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, at their French site.

Dr. Kallet taught poetry writing workshops for 37 years at UT and helped to establish the PhD with creative dissertation and the new MFA program as well as directing the Creative Writing Program from 1986-2003 and again from 2010-2015.

When Dr. Kallet retired in 2018, Mayor Rogero named her Knoxville Poet Laureate, serving two terms until June 2020, and any group in the city that wanted a poetry reading or workshop got her full attention until the pandemic hit in 2020.

I asked Dr. Kallet about her free time activities. Silly question. Her answer: “Poetry is my safe space, my home, my alternative universes, my way of exploring the world in language. To rejuvenate myself, I write poetry and I exercise. I’m also working on a memoir, at the urging of my friend Joy Harjo.”

All of us have a story and I want to tell yours! Send them to susan@knoxtntoday.com


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